Works by United States artists from the French National Collections, 1620-1940  

Prehistory: diplomacy and ethnography

In the early 19th century, American painters and sculptors, often stereotyped as provincial and derivative, still struggled to achieve respect abroad. The few American artists who were exceptions to this rule, such as Benjamin West and Gilbert Stuart, found more patronage in England than they did in France. This began to change in the mid 1840s, when King Louis-Philippe made two commissions from American artists that set a precedent for later state acquisitions of American works. In 1845-46 he commissioned 15 portraits of Indian chiefs from George Catlin and 49 portraits of American statesmen from George Peter Alexander Healy. Both sets of works were destined for the recently created Galeries Historiques at Versailles.

These portraits are historically significant because they were the first American paintings to be specifically commissioned by the French state. Yet it is questionable whether they were seen as works of art in the conventional sense by contemporary viewers. Contemporary accounts of the portraits read more like ethnographic observations than art criticism. While Healy’s portraits remain at Versailles, Catlin’s have been transferred successively to several locations, all either museums of antiquities or ethnography. Their treatment has not been not noticeably different from that accorded to other works of New World taxonomy, most famously John James Audubon’s Birds of America.

In an era before photography had become widely accepted as a portrait medium, Catlin and Healy were asked to provide true-to-life representations of New World statesmen that would fulfil a very basic descriptive function and define their subjects as uniquely “American.” Catlin’s Indian portraits are visibly concerned with recording every detail of his sitters’ exotic dress. The information they present is more physiognomic than psychological. Healy used similar techniques to develop an iconic model of the presidential portrait. His portraits, like Catlin’s Indian paintings, are relatively flat, with a strong emphasis on outline. Healy’s presidents and diplomats are characterized by sober dress and a plain manner of self-representation, a sort of Republican restraint that is striking when compared to contemporaneous portraits of European statesmen. The stylistic similarities that exist between Catlin’s Chiefs and Healy’s Presidents are striking. The circumstances of their commission and reception suggests that early 19th century American portraits were valued in official French circles less as sophisticated examples of painting than as informative or ethnographic tools.